175. Editorial Note

The North Vietnamese response to President Johnson’s offer of peace talks came on the morning of April 3, 1968. Broadcast over Radio Hanoi, the message chided the Johnson administration for enacting the partial bombing halt and labeled it a “defeat and at the same time a shrewd trick.” While Hanoi recognized that the United States had not unconditionally stopped the bombing of its territory, it was ready to make a move as well. At the end of the message was the following declaration: “However, for its part, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declares its readiness to appoint its representative to contact the U.S. representative with a view to determining with the American side the unconditional cessation of the U.S. bombing raids and all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam so that talks may start.” Following an impromptu discussion of the message from North Vietnam with 40 European news editors, the President read the statement to the press at 5:05 p.m. and pledged that on the basis of this response, the United States would establish contact with North Vietnamese representatives. For text of the North Vietnamese response and the President’s remarks, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pages 492–493. The Department transmitted these statements to the Embassy in Saigon and to Secretary of State Rusk in New Zealand in telegram 141172, April 3. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)

An April 3 memorandum on “Hanoi’s Motives” by the Office of National Estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency summarized the conclusions of the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The memorandum noted the change in tactics that the North Vietnamese response represented and suggested a number of motives for this shift. One reason may have been that Hanoi believed that [Page 511] President Johnson would resume the bombing and other offensive operations on an even larger scale if the North Vietnamese did not respond promptly. Second, North Vietnam might have already decided to respond to the partial halt in order to force a complete cessation, to influence U.S. public opinion, to create divisions between Washington and Saigon, and to undermine the South Vietnamese morale. Third, the North Vietnamese likely regarded the halt and offer to talk “as a decisive change in U.S. policy—an admission of unwillingness to continue the war, and a first step towards accepting the consequences.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Subject Files, Job 80–B01285A, DCI (Helms) Chrono., Jan.–Jul. 1968)

A more detailed analysis of Hanoi’s motives was circulated on April 8 to the President and his top foreign policy advisers. This memorandum, from Abbot Smith, Chairman of the Board of National Estimates, to Director of Central Intelligence Helms, suggested three possibilities. One was that the North Vietnamese leadership was “highly optimistic” in believing that the tide of the war had turned in its favor and thus would “begin talking while still fighting.” Another possibility was that the North Vietnamese were “uncertain” and thus “the President’s initiative offered an opportunity—though not an ideal one—to give greater emphasis to the political aspects of the struggle.” Additionally, the North Vietnamese might have appraised the situation as “pessimistic” due to the losses they suffered at Tet and therefore “the President’s statement provided a way out.” Other contingencies explored in the memorandum included possible domestic turbulence inside North Vietnam or struggle among the top leadership. In conclusion, the memorandum argued that “Hanoi considers that it can register further military successes at costs it can afford to bear even if it would prefer not to, that it believes the will to persist is beginning to crumble on the US/GVN side, and that hard bargaining combined with continued military pressure can bring a favorable outcome.” (Ibid.) A similar analysis by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research appeared in Intelligence Note No. 240 from Deputy Director George Denney to Acting Secretary Nicholas Katzenbach, April 4. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S)